CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 22. . . . February 9, 2018
Réal Dufresne has a bad reputation in Cold Water. People call him psycho, sick, and dangerous. When his best friend, Shaun, is found dead, his body mangled, the day after their big fight, Réal blames himself. He thinks he might have killed Shaun during their fight, but the problem is, he has no memory of it.
Since Shaun’s death, Ré has been having disturbing nightmares and obsessing over the fact that he is a descendant of the cannibalistic Windigo, Black Chuck. Ré wonders if there really is something dark swirling inside of him, if the things that people say about him just might have a ring of truth to them.
Black Chuck is author Regan McDonell’s first published novel. She studied writing at the University of Victoria before changing plans to pursue a career in textile and graphic design. She currently works as a creative director at a marketing agency during the day whilst writing teen fiction in the evenings.
Black Chuck is a novel that weaves together several different themes to create a gritty novel like no other. Mixed with dark themes of death, grief, guilt, and secrets kept, McDonell has sprinkled in ideas of love, family, friendship, loyalty, and personal and cultural identity. The themes work well together to create a book unlike anything I have read before. The themes are well-balanced so as not to make the dark passages too disturbing or overwhelming, or the romance aspect too sugary for readers.
Throughout the book, readers learn about Réal’s Indigenous heritage through both his conversations with Evie and in the words and phrases he uses in Anishinaabemowin. Additionally, Ré’s recollections of his family’s relation to the infamous Windigo, Black Chuck, shed light on the power of storytelling within his family’s culture. In the author’s note at the end of the book, McDonell shares her intentions in writing Réal’s character in a culturally sensitive and respectful way and the efforts she made to ensure that she did so. She shares her source of translations for the Anishinaabemowin phrases and provides resources for readers interested in taking their learning further in regards to the Windigo, Anishinaabemowin, and residential schools. After reading the book, I feel that McDonell was successful in meeting her goal of developing Ré’s character in a respectful and accurate way and doing justice to the Indigenous themes presented within the book.
McDonell has developed characters who are diverse, multidimensional, and flawed, which makes them relatable. From Réal being stereotyped by his peers as psycho, sick, and dangerous, when he is actually a loyal friend and caring sibling, to Evie, the quiet girl hiding a secret pregnancy, the characters in Black Chuck have many unique characteristics for readers to connect with. The other two supporting characters that round out the teen friend group are Alex, the stoner from a wealthy family with ties to a biker gang, and his girlfriend, Sunny, who at first comes across as a mean girl but is later revealed to be struggling with an eating disorder. One aspect that I would have liked to see developed further would be Réal’s bad reputation. At the beginning of the book, there is one scene in which he gets into a fight with a peer who speaks ill of Shaun at the school memorial service for him, which, given the circumstances, could arguably be justified. Besides that, Ré’s actions demonstrate characteristics that show him to be a young man who is responsible for taking care of his four younger siblings, a loyal friend to Shaun and Alex, and a person with a sense of honour to take care of a pregnant Evie after her boyfriend passes away. I felt like more background information could have been provided through flashbacks to give the reader a picture of where Ré’s reputation as someone to be feared came from.
I think that Black Chuck is a unique book that will appeal to many readers in the target audience. The unsolved death, teen pregnancy, and unexpected romance are distinct ideas that work well together and provide something to capture all readers’ attention. The members of the diverse cast of characters are relatable and well developed, making for an engaging read. McDonell has woven in Indigenous cultural aspects throughout that work well with the book’s other themes and that are culturally appropriate and informative for readers. Black Chuck is an engaging and diverse book that would be a welcomed additional to any classroom or school library.
Chasity Findlay is a high school English language arts teacher and a recent graduate of the Master of Education program at the University of Manitoba.